When Children Won't Apologize - Does that Mean They Don't Feel Remorse?
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Many parents are realizing that their children don’t want to say they’re sorry when they’ve done something they shouldn’t have. Some children go to great lengths to avoid apologizing, and even accept consequences instead. When children refuse to apologize, the adults in their lives worry that they don’t feel remorse. Then we get more anxious. Does he have no conscience or empathy? Or worse: Is he a sociopath? Will he become a criminal? We wonder what to do.

Why are so many children refusing to apologize? Children used to be taught from the earliest ages to always say “I’m sorry” for anything they shouldn’t have done –  accidental or deliberate. It was as automatic as the way we still teach “please” and “thank you.” Then a theory took hold discouraging adults from insisting that a child say “I’m sorry” if she really isn’t. An insincere apology, this theory went, is of no real value. For the past 10 to 15 years, this view has been taught to young children by teachers and parents. Many children grew up with that belief system. and never developed what should be an automatic habit of saying “I’m sorry.” Instead, these children view apologizing as some sort of horrible admission of guilt, a surrender or humiliation, and refuse to do it. What was supposed to happen, according to the theory, was that as children got old enough to understand their role in “hurting” someone, they would sincerely feel sorry and start apologizing. That hasn’t happened. This unwillingness to automatically apologize is causing many parents and teachers to fear that these children don’t truly feel sorry and have no remorse.

Just as young children really learn to be truly appreciative many years after they start saying “thank you,” very young children should be taught to say “I’m sorry” – for  emotional and physical hurts and accidental and purposeful hurts. When young children learn to say they’re sorry, after time they come to realize they shouldn’t have done what they did, and they feel sincerely sorry and willing to accept blame. We want apologizing to be automatic, just like “please” and “thank you.”
If you see this problem in your children, here are some useful strategies:

  1. Since most young children may not even be aware that they upset anyone when they jumped on your back, or called you a big meany, or stepped on another child’s block structure, it really doesn’t matter whether your young child is sincerely sorry or not. We just want them to apologize. The sooner we start, the more automatic this habit will be. With time, sometimes years, people start to realize all the feelings and perspectives involved and more fully understand their responsibility.
  2. When you do something you shouldn’t, make sure you apologize, so your child sees how automatic it is. (Remember, most people apologize to others many times in a typical day – it’s viewed as basic considerate behavior.)
  3. Make sure you are not overindulging your child by giving him too much say in the family, or too many privileges or material things. Too much indulgence creates children who are self-centered, have little empathy and are reluctant to take responsibility for their actions, even actions that are hurtful to others.
  4. If teachers and others caring for your children don’t agree with this approach, explain that it is your childrearing philosophy and why. They need to be reminded  that you make the ultimate decisions about your child, and you need them to be consistent with your approach.
  5. If your child has learned that he doesn’t have to apologize and therefore doesn’t believe he has to say he’s sorry, explain to him how he learned that habit, how your view has changed, and why you now think apologizing is an important courtesy. Help him explore how he feels when he apologizes. Try to relate to his perspective so he knows that you’re aware of how hard this will be.
  6. If your young child won’t apologize, set up some fun, lighthearted practices with you and her practicing apologizing for all kinds of things – including silly things, like apologizing to the table for bumping into it.
  7. If your child is older and doesn’t believe in apologizing, explain to him what a negative impression people get of someone who won’t say he’s sorry. Tell him it makes it seem like they don’t regret it and only care about themselves – not the kind of person most people want to be around, or have their children be with.  Make sure he knows that people like others better if they apologize when they harm someone. Lots of children don’t know that.
By following these guidelines, we can help ensure our children’s futures as caring members of society who feel sincerely sorry and responsible for their actions.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015